Sunday, May 23, 2021

Noir Watch: Touch of Evil (1958)

Watched:  05/22/2021
Format:  Noir Alley on DVR
Viewing:  Unknown - 4th?
Decade:  1950's
Director:  Orson Welles

Jesus, this movie.  

For anyone who wants to talk about the great days of America and imagines the 1950's as some period of Leave It To Beaver simplicity, knowing that the era could also produce a movie that every corrupt cop movie has tried to stand up to since is a hell of a reality check.  In an era where even the noir films were being relit for eventual television distribution (less in content than in visuals), Welles' final Hollywood backed opus hits some of the darkest notes in a noir of the entire era.  

I've written before about how anxious Touch of Evil (1958) makes me, and that's still true.  I'd previously attributed most of that anxiety to the frustration and sympathy with Janet Leigh's young bride character who seems to be (a) the only one with a clear-eyed view of the situation, (b) in absolute peril from multiple forms of assault, and (c) utterly ignored by the macho men playing cops and robbers around her - she's an absolute prop, even to her own husband.


But this time, looking at the choices made in shooting the film - it's all of one piece.  Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty's work isn't the stark, Hopper-esque world of John Alton, it's all dutch angles and gradations in lived-in spaces.  That's not to mention the motion of camera (while staying aloft or below the characters!) that never lets you see them dead on - even in deep close-up.  

I watched the restored cut - released in recent years and based on notes Welles gave the studio after he saw what they intended to release - begging them to make some changes to not dilute the film.  What I'd understood to be a sweeping opening sequence now has the titles stripped away, and you can see what was intended in a wildly ambitious bit of camera-work, introducing the story, our protagonists, our world - all in one shot that required split second choreography and still feels entirely natural as the camera lifts and swings through the streets of a border town.  Even if you've not intention of watching the rest of the movie - that sequence alone deserves film-school study for everything it does, a master class in storytelling.


By the way, the car passenger in the sequence who can hear a ricking noise in her head?  That's the late Joi Lansing, who was...  really something.* 

And, yeah - that second thing is absolutely the layered dialog and mumbled lines.  It's (intentionally) disorienting, organic and occasionally inserting Spanish makes it all the harder for the ear to keep up and throws off the viewer.  I'm someone who believes in the "sound matters far more in film than you'd expect" notion, and as evidenced by the fact we'll all watch movies on a phone or back of an airplane seat, but if there's anything off in the sound, we're tearing off our headphones.  Movies have known since the advent of sound what happens if the lines are crisp and clear - and the intentional cross-talk and Quinlan's muttered lines work to throw you off.  Add in the audio and inserted music in the motel scenes with Janet Leigh and the need for clarity of speech to catch Quinlan in the finale- and it's brilliantly done.  

Add in a score by Henry Mancini that plays with a variety of beats and influences, and you've got something.

Those final scenes play with elevation, the camera seeking Vargas and Quinlan as they change elevation, from high perches and down in rivers and up on bridges, all the while trying to get clear audio that will settle what is really happening.  And the silence of the last minutes.

The movie is a border story, something Hollywood played with a bit from its inception, sometimes projecting onto Westerns, and sometimes in the modern era.  And so there's a dynamic of what is the "right" and "wrong" side of the border - and what is and is not corruption.  What is and is not justice and law-enforcement.  What are the borders we'll cross to get justice, and, ultimately, what borders can't be crossed.  

No easy answers are given - Quinlan, in the end, was actually right about his suspect, he just had to frame him up and threaten him, and beat him a bit to get there.  Vargas, our hero, is blind and deaf to his own wife's entreaties and warnings, leaving her vulnerable as both their lives are threatened.  

I'd be curious to know what Heston thought of the role.

Released in 1958, the film's depictions of *everyone* is unfavorable.  The casual racism of mid-Century America is both on display and more nuanced than your twitter-crowd would want to give it credit for.  There's Mexican criminals but also our lawman of conscience.  We're not so lucky to find such a man north of the border where the Anglos are cowards and liars and frame-up artists.  

But, look, the film does get very dark.  I won't debate or breakdown the politics and possible Film 101 readings, but sex, sexual assault and what the film says and doesn't say when the woman in question is an Anglo is some murky territory.  Especially when the Mexican cop is played by Charlton Heston in make-up.  And I am sure there are plenty of articles and monographs to tackle race in the film and race as handled in films of the 1950's, not least because of the Hayes Code.  

We can try to figure Dietrich's Tanya out some other time.  I'll bring a white board and we'll just idea-ate.

But, man, it's a bleak film with a dark, cold heart.  When maybe the best of the characters is brutally victimized and the one person (still living) who might have cared about any of it just turns and goes home when he's bobbing in the river.

The film ends on two relatively minor supporting characters, including Dietrich's Tanya.  And it's as fine an exchange as you're going to find in noir.

*she appeared once on The Adventures of Superman as Superman's fake wife (and made Lois very sad, indeed).  


Groboclown said...

Such a goid flick. Great choice.

Special mention for this being referenced in "Ed Wood," when the titular character meets up with Wells who complains that he has to cast Heston as a Mexican.

The League said...

Oh, yeah. I hadn't seen the movie yet when I saw Ed Wood, but I know it got a big response in the theater just on principle. When I saw the movie later I remember realizing "ohhhh... this is what they were talking about" by the end of the opening sequence. Now I want to rewatch Ed Wood.